Part field trip, part festival, the University of Texas Marine Sciences Institute’s free annual Open House held Saturday, August 13, 2011, offered almost more to learn and enjoy than a single day could contain. It was a thrill just being on the UTMSI campus, surrounded by all that energy devoted to learning and disseminating knowledge.
I arrived early so that I could register for the first field excursion aboard R/V Katy. Hordes of enthusiastic assistants and volunteers coordinated parking, gave directions, answered questions, manned the information and registration stations and got visitors signed up for the various events: field excursions to explore bay and marine ecology and marsh and seagrass habitats, bay boat tours and guided walking tours of wetlands and marshes, the Marine Science Institute and Estuarine Research Center. In the UTMSI theater, award-winning elementary school teacher Pam Stryker was on hand to entertain and inform small children. Throughout the day, Dr. Joan Holt, Dr. Lee Fuiman, Dr. Peter Thomas, Sally Morehead and UTMSI staffers offered guided tours of the Fisheries and Mariculture Lab, Marine Science Institute, the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve and tanks holding southern flounder, croaker and zebrafish.
At 9:30, I joined my tour group gathered at the UTMSI dock, met our Captain, Stan Dignum, and our naturalist, Dr. Rick Tinnin. Dr. Tinnin gave us a quick briefing on safety aboard the vessel, an overview of what we would experience and then we were underway, headed into Aransas Bay. As we passed St. Joe’s Island and the Lydia Ann lighthouse, Dr. Tinnin described some of the features that make this a fertile breeding ground for sea life. Because of the nutrients in the water and the way that the barrier islands shelter our bays, if you’re a fish, this is definitely where you want to grow up. The abundance of fish makes the area attractive to anglers.
The R/V Katy is outfitted like a shrimp trawler. Dr. Tinnin deployed two types of nets. One pulled in microscopic critters like shrimp larvae, plankton and diatoms. We got to see them through little handheld magnifying viewers and also via a microscope image displayed on a large color monitor. Dr. Tinnin also reeled in a net full of larger creatures like catfish, shrimp, moonfish, ribbon fish, pinfish and a squid. He and his assistants showed us how to recognize predatory features like teeth and wide mouths, and defense features like spiny fins and the tiny forward-facing spike on the pinfish. We passed the critters around so we could each get a close look.
We returned to the dock and as I headed back to attend more events, the smell of smoked meat and the sound of surf music drifted my way. In the courtyard, several groups raising funds for their organizations sold snacks, beverages and barbeque while Aloha Dave and the Tourists played Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett tunes contributing to the festival atmosphere. Little kids stayed entertained at the touch tanks, “Story Time,” face-painting and angling for plastic fish floating in a large tank.
Tony Amos of the Animal Rehabilitation Keep was on hand to describe the ARK’s mission of rescuing injured sea turtles and birds. He was in the middle of displaying items from his Museum of Entanglement (various hooks, fishing lines, tackle and detritus that have ensnared marine animals) when he got a call about an injured bird at J.P Luby Park.
Established in 1941, the UTMSI is the oldest marine research facility on the Texas coast. Its scientists, graduate students, educators, assistants and volunteers.study ecology, migration patterns, fish physiology, reproduction and growth, pollution and a host of other subjects to increase our understanding of the world’s oceans and coasts. You can take a virtual tour of the UTMSI at http://www.utmsi.utexas.edu/visit/virtual-tour.html or check out the visitor’s center at the end of Cotter Street, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Groups tours are available on request. Call 361-749-6729. Be sure to attend the next Open House. I’ll see you there.